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Writing a Letter of Recommendation - hhmi.org

Writing a Letter of Recommendation Addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty second edition Burroughs Wellcome Fund Howard Hughes Medical Institute Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, second edition 2006 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund All rights reserved. Writing a Letter of Recommendation : Electronic addendum published 2009. Writer: Laura Bonetta, Production: Martine Bernard Design Permission to use, copy, and distribute this publication or excerpts is granted provided that (1) the copyright notice above appears in all reproductions; (2) use is for noncom- mercial educational purposes only; and (3) the publication or excerpts are not modified in any way (except when used for noncommercial educational purpo)

BWF ♦ HHMI. 1. WRITING A LETTER OF . RECOMMENDATION. A. s a beginning independent investigator, chances are you will soon have to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of a student, a postdoc, or even a colleague.

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1 Writing a Letter of Recommendation Addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty second edition Burroughs Wellcome Fund Howard Hughes Medical Institute Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, second edition 2006 by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund All rights reserved. Writing a Letter of Recommendation : Electronic addendum published 2009. Writer: Laura Bonetta, Production: Martine Bernard Design Permission to use, copy, and distribute this publication or excerpts is granted provided that (1) the copyright notice above appears in all reproductions; (2) use is for noncom- mercial educational purposes only; and (3) the publication or excerpts are not modified in any way (except when used for noncommercial educational purposes).

2 Requests beyond that scope should be directed to The views expressed in this publication are those of its contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute or the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. This publication is available online at Burroughs Wellcome Fund Howard Hughes Medical Institute 21 Alexander Drive 4000 Jones Bridge Road Box 13901 Chevy Chase, Maryland 20815-6789. Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709-3901. Writing A Letter OF. Recommendation . As a beginning independent investigator, chances are you will soon have to write a Letter of Recommendation on behalf of a student, a postdoc, or even a colleague.

3 Your job as Letter writer will be to describe the candidate's strengths and weak- nesses as they relate to the position or program in a way that is both thoughtful and personal. A Letter that falls short of this goal will be of little value to those evaluating applications and will not help the candidate get what he or she is after. So, it pays to put in the necessary effort and time to write a good Letter . This chapter provides insights and advice from experienced investigators on how to do so. It is not meant to be prescriptive but rather to offer some suggestions from which you can pick and choose.

4 BEING ASKED TO WRITE A Letter . Letters of Recommendation are ubiquitous in an academic research career. If you teach one or more senior-level undergraduate courses or have undergraduate students in your laboratory, you might have to write dozens of letters a year as students become graduate-school bound or look for employment. If you do not teach undergraduates and have primarily graduate students and postdocs in your lab, you will have significantly fewer letters to write maybe for only one or two people each year. In addition to the people in your own lab, graduate students and postdocs in your department may ask you to write letters for them when they apply for fel- lowships or seek new positions.

5 Colleagues might also ask you to write letters of Recommendation on their behalf for various promotions or awards, but that may not happen too often until you are more established. For Whom Should You Write? As a mentor, you have an obligation to support students and postdocs in your lab in their job search and to help them find a good match for their abilities and aspi- rations. If they ask you to write a Recommendation Letter , it is customary to sup- port them in this way. The best thing to do is to sit down with them and discuss their plans before they start applying for jobs. If their career goals are unrealistic, talk about what they need to do to become more competitive or help steer them BWF HHMI 1.

6 Making the Right Moves A Practical Guide to Scientific Management in a different direction. If you do end up Writing a Letter for someone in your lab for a job you don't think is a good fit, there are ways to put a positive spin on the negative (see page 6, Writing a Not-So-Enthusiastic' Letter ). If people who are not part of your lab ask you to write a Letter for them, it is up to you to decide whether to do so. Reasons to Turn Someone Down You should write a Letter of Recommendation only if you can honestly write a supportive Letter for someone for a given position. After all, a Letter of recom- mendation is supposed to be a tool for helping people obtain what they are after.

7 If you don't know the candidate well enough to write a good Letter , let the person know. He or she will probably ask someone else. If you do know the candidate well but have some reservations, let the person know about your concerns, and leave it up to him or her to decide whether you should still write the Letter . PREPARATION. Read Some Sample Letters If you have never written a Letter of Recommendation before, read a stack of reference letters to see what works and what doesn't. Most faculty have access to graduate student applications and the letters submitted. Junior faculty can also ask their more experienced colleagues to share sample letters they have written or have received from applicants (blocking out names and other personal infor- mation).

8 The resource section of this chapter provides links to sample letters. Collect Information Once you know what a Letter of Recommendation looks like, make sure you find out as much as possible about the candidate for whom you are Writing . One of the worst things you can do is to write a Letter that is too generic. Ask for the following information: T i p : When reading a sample Recommendation For people in your lab you prob- Letter , try to put yourself in the position of who- ably already have a current curricu- ever is going to read it, keeping in mind that you lum vitae (CV), but also ask for as could be reading the Letter late at night or when complete a description as possible of you are pressed for time.

9 Ask yourself which let- the position or program for which ters stand out and then use them as models for the person is applying. your own letters. 2 BWF HHMI. Writing a Letter of Recommendation For people who are not in your lab ask for a current CV that includes the dates and locations of their training and a list of publications as well as copies of any papers that are in press or that have been submitted. For people who were in your lab but have since moved on ask for a written summary of their current work, future plans, and why they are interested in the position for which you are Writing the Letter .

10 For students who are not in your lab or department but who were in one of the classes you taught ask for transcripts and check your class records. Many reference writers find it helpful to meet with the person who has requested the Letter of Recommendation . In such a meeting you can learn about the person's long-term career goals and how his or her current research and other activities re- late to these goals. Ask about the programs or positions for which letters are being requested and what the individual's prefer- T i p : Don't ask the candidate to write a draft of ence is and why.


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